Anxiety at NASA as Mars InSight spacecraft nears Red Planet


And if you're in NY, you can stand with fellow New Yorkers, tourists and fully grown adults in Elmo suits to celebrate the moment in Times Square.

All this happens in less than 7 minutes without any help from engineers and scientists back at JPL. But instead of watching the alien mothership explode, you'll see a real-world space achievement years in the making.

This evening, Nasa's Insight Mars lander will touch down on the Red Planet after a journey of more than 300 million miles.

Mars' atmosphere is thin, just 1% of the Earth's, but since the beginnings of the Mars exploration program in 1965, NASA has figured out how to use that atmosphere to its advantage.

NASA and Lockheed engineers won't know right away whether the spacecraft has made it safely down to the surface-there is a time delay of 8.1 minutes for communications between Earth and Mars at present.

InSight is designed as the first mission to study and learn about the deep interiors of the red planet.

As a back-up system, InSight will send one of two tones via a UHF signal to Earth, immediately after touching down.

As the probe enters the atmosphere, the air molecules that make up the Martian atmosphere strike the heat shield, causing the shield to heat up and the craft to slow down. For example, when the parachute is deployed, InSight will slow, which in turn will change the frequency of the signal.

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Nasa is planning to broadcast its first Mars landing in six years to viewers "everywhere" using its social media accounts and online television channel. Fifteen seconds later, the heat shield separates from the spacecraft.

No landing on Mars is easy.

The smaller, 880-pound (360 kg) InSight - its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - marks the 21st US -launched Martian exploration including the Mariner fly-by missions of the 1960s. At 3 P.M. EST the spacecraft should touch down on Mars.

The spacecraft will be landing on Elysium Planitia, a large volcanic plain stretching north of Mars' equator.

"We freefall for just a little bit, which is an absolutely terrifying thought for me", said Tom Hoffman, project manager of InSight.

But InSight will explore far beyond that, sinking a "self-hammering" probe that will dig itself into the ground to a depth of 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters), for experiments measuring how the rock in the planet's interior conducts heat. In addition to the burrowing subsurface probe, InSight also carries seismometers that will measure "marsquakes" - tiny vibrations triggered by planetary activity under the planet's crust. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like insane and screaming. An inquiry completed previous year concluded that onboard computer software errors led to data conflicts, causing the probe to strike Mars at high speed.

For an added bonus, the MarCO team will attempt to snap pictures of InSight during the landing, however they are unsure if they will actually see anything.